Casino, condos ruled out for Ontario Place redevelopment: province

TORONTO – Ontario has ruled out a casino and condos on the site of Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront as it issues a call for development proposals, but the future of the park’s iconic Cinesphere and pods are in question.

Ontario Place; Photo: Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Tibollo, the minister of tourism, culture and sport, said the government wants to see the site turned into a world-class, year-round destination both for Ontarians and for tourists.

”We have a jewel in Ontario Place,” he said. ”It just needs to be polished.”

The government will consider a broad range of ideas, from sport and entertainment landmarks, to public spaces and parks, to recreational facilities and retail space, Tibollo said.

”But I want to be clear: our vision for Ontario Place does not include residential developments or casinos,” he said.

The development guidelines do not, however, require the famous white Cinesphere cinema or iconic pods to be preserved. The site’s islands are also open for development.

Community group Ontario Place for All raised concerns that significant landmarks will be torn down.

“If the government succeeds with this wholesale destruction of Ontario Place, Ontario Place could be turned into a gated entertainment community, accessible only to those who can afford to pay,” steering committee member Cynthia Wilkey said in a statement.

The province closed Ontario Place to the public in 2012 due to falling revenues at the government-owned theme park and tight provincial finances. At that time, the government said attendance had fallen from 2.5 million when it opened in 1971 to about 300,000. But advocates for the park say that Ontario Place was already on the upswing by 2010, attendance almost doubled in 2011 and the park was expected to break even by 2015. One year after reopening in 2017, it had as many visitors as the CN Tower.

Various proposals have been floated since its closure, including a year-round waterpark with a retractable roof, a casino complex and hotel, as well as residential development.

Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton said the government will not be putting up any capital or operational money for the project.

”It’s important that we activate and engage the private sector,” he said. ”This is going to be a very, very exciting process that begins today, that wraps up on Sept. 3, so it’s a very quick turnaround, but we expect there’s going to be a lot of big names interested in putting forward ideas.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said members of the public should be consulted about their vision for Ontario Place.

“It looks like Mr. (Doug) Ford is more interested in jumping on a bulldozer with a bunch of his developer buddies and making sure they can all fill their pockets, as opposed to having a real look at what Ontarians want and what Torontonians want,” she said.

Ontario Place Cinesphere; Photo: Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons

Interim Liberal leader John Fraser said with the government recently announcing plans to rip up a deal with the Beer Store, other companies may be wary about entering into a contract with the province.

“I am concerned that with this they’re talking about signing another major contract with organizations and there may be a Doug Ford contingency because of all the contracts they’re legislating themselves out of,” he said.

The Budweiser Stage, used for concerts, is not subject to redevelopment and the government says it also intends to maintain three hectares of park land.

Trillium Park was opened at Ontario Place in 2017, five years after it had closed, and was connected to the city by the William G. Davis recreational trail, named after Ontario’s premier the year Ontario Place first opened.

The proposal stipulations say the government prefers a plan for a comprehensive development of the whole site, but ”smaller-scale creative and bold concepts may also be considered for portions of the site.”

The mainland, east and west islands, the pod complex and Cinesphere cinema are open for development. The marinas can be reconfigured or relocated, but a marina must be maintained somewhere on the site.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city was notified of Tuesday’s step, “as opposed to any substantive discussion between our two levels of government.”

“As an owner of a portion of Ontario Place, the city of Toronto has a long-standing interest in its future,” he said in a statement.

Ford said in a statement that there have been several meetings between the city and the province, and taking a casino off the table is in response to Toronto’s concerns.

President Leslie Thompson of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO)says that the heritage organization is”extremely disappointed that the RFP continues to have no restrictions on development other than no casinos, no residential, and the conservation of the Budweiser Stage. All of the site’s recognized heritage is at risk; the buildings, the landscape, as well as Trillium Park, the most recent park which is extremely important to indigenous peoples. ”

Thompson continues, “The ACO wrote to Minister Tibollo in February, asking that the RFP incorporate the features recognized in the Ontario Government’s Statement of Cultural Heritage Value. We also underlined the importance of conserving the important features in our meeting with Minister Tibollo in February. Since then, the City of Toronto has designated the site, and has identified Trillium Park as also having cultural significance, along with the Ontario Place buildings and landscape—a masterwork by architect Eb Zeidler and landscape architect Michael Hough.”

“Our Toronto branch also hosted a sold-out forum in early February with the Toronto Society of Architects entitled Ontario Place Building on Our Legacy, with leading experts discussing what might be done. Our Toronto Branch sponsored a video which had over 60,000 hits on different social media channels. All our submissions seem to have fallen on deaf ears.”

The province’s Statement of Cultural Heritage Value has been removed from the Ontario government website, but is available on the ACO Toronto website, under Sources.

Interested parties are invited to visit for more information on the opportunity and details on how to make a submission. Submissions are due September 3, 2019. Infrastructure Ontario has engaged KPMG and Colliers to market and promote this opportunity.